Robert Christgau on Matt Berninger's Depressive Tendencies

The Dean of American Rock Critics reviews The National's 'Sleep Well Beast,' Deer Tick's 'Vol. 2,' and The Paranoid Style's 'Underworld U.S.A.'

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Nov 17 2017, 5:50pm

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The self-proclaimed "Dean of American Rock Critics," Robert Christgau was one of the pioneers of music criticism as we know it. He was the music editor at the Village Voice for almost four decades where he created the trusted annual Pazz & Jop Poll. He was one of the first mainstream critics to write about hip-hop and the only one to review Simon & Garfunkel's Bridge Over Troubled Water with one word: "Melodic." On top of his columns, he has published six books, including his 2015 autobiography, Going Into the City. He currently teaches at New York University. Every week, we publish Expert Witness, his long-running critical column. To read more about his career, read his welcome post; for four decades of critical reviews, check out his regularly updated website.

The National: Sleep Well Beast (4AD) Matt Berninger's depressive tendencies have always been shticky—probably sincere enough, whatever that means or matters, but a stance for sale regardless. Yet as he murmurs through the quietest and most lyrical of the band's albums, I often find myself touched, moved, even sorry for him. From the stairwell tryst at the outset to the matched pledges of devotion and destruction that bring proceedings to a close, the amassed detail of the settings and feelings doesn't so much eliminate shtick as transcend it. One thing, though. Not to be a prig or a scold, but insofar as the details are autobiographical, maybe somebody should quit drinking. A MINUS

Deer Tick: Vol. 2 (Partisan) Unlike 2013's simultaneously out-of-its-skull and pop-curious Negativity (try: "Hey Doll," "In Our Time") or 2017's simultaneously depressive and folk-leaning Vol. 1 (try: "Sea of Clouds," "Rejection"), this is the kind of garage Americana that's John McCauley's modest gift to the world: half an hour's worth of noisy, catchy, rootsy songs about fucking up, self-doubt, provisional camaraderie, rowdy abandon, and, most important, good times that haven't ended yet (but still might). The classic is "S.M.F.," which stands for Shitty Music Festival. May they end their Bonnaroo set with it. A MINUS

The Paranoid Style: Underworld U.S.A. (Bar/None) "We tried to figure out exactly the point of show business during this most lurid of all impasses," Elizabeth Nelson noted recently, and whether avocational indie counts as show business or not, it's clearly been a trial. The title tune is properly scary: "It's like the founders said the jaws of power are always open to devour," soon followed by "You dined on us so long you lost the taste for delicacy." But "I Believe U Believe U Can Fly" is the one great song on this EP because it torpedoes a catchphrase we figured out long ago. Other zingers of varying quality are dropped here and there—the throwaway "Langford's still an atheist" is one I like. But the lyrics tend opaque—pretty sure "Hawk Vs. Prez" is about Lester Young, for instance, but that took a lot of delving that only got me so far. What makes this lacuna doubly frustrating is that Nelson probably knows more about the ins and outs of Washington politics than any songwriter working, and it would be nice to think she could make something of what may not actually be an impasse. It would also be nice if she roped in a more limber rhythm section. A MINUS

Shilpa Ray: Door Girl (Northern Spy) Blessed with the New York heart and attitude of Patti and David Jo, cursed by lesser talent, night thoughts, and Gotham's rising rents ("Add Value Add Time," "Revelations of a Stamp Monkey") ***

LCD Soundsystem: American Dream (Columbia) Still an expert architect of musical spectacles, but... does anybody actually like the guy? ("Tonite," "Oh Baby") **

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